The destruction of the idyll in the Mao era
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The portrayal of rural family life in To Live (Huozhe) accords with Bahktin’s analysis of the idyllic chronotope. The cyclical rhythm of human life is connected, literally and figuratively, to the natural environment through agricultural labour. However, the cyclical fabric essential to this chronotope is challenged throughout the narration by the Chinese desire for industrialization and modernization. Even though the idyllic chronotope decomposes throughout, the novel remains a sympathetic depiction of Chinese agricultural life from the pre-civil war period until the Cultural Revolution. It is rich with Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist voices that give this incarnation of the Chinese idyll a uniquely Chinese character. In the novel, the human cycles determining the chronotope of the idyll are broken—families are driven from the homes of their ancestors and parents bury their children. The novel demonstrates how this disruption is the result of a desire to sweep away the traditional psychology of the idyll in the name of modernization and industrialization. Presented in frame-narrative at a distance of 10 years, the disintegrating idyllic chronotope is located in a past moment accessible to the imagination and yet divorced from the present. This narrative crisis is symptomatic of the ecological crisis that faces China and the world; it is also of key importance to the inter-chronotopic dialogue of a modern reader and the text, for it places this idyllic world at a distance, allowing a modern reader to access the text despite the gulf that separates the reader’s chronotope from the idyll’s. China, a land rich in ancient and modern voices that celebrate the unity of man and nature, is a fertile field for the ecocritic’s own labour, and these voices must be tilled and harvested in order to assist China and the world through the ecological crisis we face.